Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Cell

by Andrew Hudak

The underappreciated "The Cell" and "Maggie" are strong choices on Blu-Ray this week.

When people talk about “art” films, they usually mean art house films—small, independent features with low budgets. Most mainstream movies are not considered “art” because they are full of special effects, loud noises, quick cut action, and stuff blowin’ up real good. “The Cell,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn, is a mainstream movie to be sure. But as directed by Tarsem Singh, it’s more than a standard “catch the killer” movie. It’s also a wondrous and colorful realization of an artistic vision—a movie where a director took his imagination and put it up on the big screen.

The risk with such auteurship is self-indulgence. Perhaps the fact that “The Cell” was Singh’s first major feature kept such impulses in check. There is not a single frame in the movie that is overdone, nor a single moment that tries to be clever but winds up undermining what it’s trying to accomplish. Singh’s look for “The Cell” is one of a painting—albeit a terrifying one in some parts—come to life.

The movie stars Jennifer Lopez as Dr. Catherine Deane, a psychologist who uses a revolutionary new device that allows her to go into the minds of comatose patients and interact with them. When we first meet her, she is riding a horse on a desert landscape inside the mind of young Edward Baines (Colton James), a coma patient. She is able to talk to Edward inside of his mind, with the goal of getting him to come out of his coma.

These opening shots are breathtaking, especially on a big screen. It’s cinematography fitting of “Lawrence of Arabia,” with extreme long shots of the horse traveling over mounds of sand. Low angles bring the horizon line up to near the top of the screen, giving a sense of the enormity and grandeur of the landscape. Right from the get go, we know that we are going to be in for an incredible visual experience.

But Catherine needs something else to do besides bring boys out of comas, and that is where FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) comes in. He’s hunting a serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio). Carl has a penchant for drowning young women, bleaching them pale white, and masturbating over them while suspended from chains attached to the ceiling. One gets the sense that a date with this guy will be anything but the usual night out. It’s up to Peter to catch Carl before he drowns another woman. Too bad that Carl is comatose on his kitchen floor by the time Peter arrives, so there is no way Carl can tell him where his latest victim is located.

Catherine entering into Carl’s mind is where “The Cell” really takes off and where the artistry really shines through. The costumes, makeup, sets, and visual and practical effects all work together to create a bizarre, fascinating, and somewhat frightening vision. Like any great painting, the use of light, shadow, color, and composition all come into play. Every shot is well thought out and executed. Unlike a lot of dream/fantasy movies that can get frustrating because anything goes and therefore nothing matters, “The Cell” builds suspense and makes you want to see what bold, imaginative thing you’ll see next. It’s one of the few movies that is such a visually arresting experience, you can watch it with the sound off and be mesmerized by the pictorial journey taking place on screen. Buy it.

Cell, The (BD) [Blu-ray]

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I applaud Arnold Schwarzenegger for taking on the role of Wade Vogel in “Maggie.” After decades of playing Terminators, Barbarians, and yes, Kindergarten Cops, he’s stretching himself as a thespian. It took him over thirty years, but he finally proved that he can act. In spite of the plot being about a man caring for his recently infected daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) in the wake of a zombie epidemic, don’t expect any goo or gore. “Maggie” is a much more introspective movie. It’s a drama about the bond between father and daughter and how those ties are unbreakable. Neither time, distance, disease, nor the law can come between them.

Wade knows his daughter is sick. Normally she would be sent to a quarantine area, where she would be administered painful drugs and live out the rest of her days. He’s heard the horror stories about quarantine, and refuses to let his daughter suffer that agony. He loves her and will protect her and care for her.

The scenes between Wade and Maggie are warm and tender. Schwarzenegger in particular does a first rate job of conveying his character’s inner conflict about what to do. He knows that quarantine is the law. He also knows that the disease infecting her is terrible. The treatment is also terrible. The most humane thing to do is put her out of her misery before things get too bad. But then his daughter is gone, and he wants as much quality time with her as he can get. What’s a father to do?

I really felt for Wade and sympathized with his struggle throughout “Maggie.” This zombie apocalypse story is not one of grand scale panic, horror, and mayhem. It’s a look at humanity, and how people are affected by seeing their loved ones suffer and change. What’s worse, there isn’t much of anything they can do about it and they know that death will come sooner than they’ll ever want. “Maggie” may be about a fictional zombie disease outbreak, but it’s a metaphor for any degenerative, debilitating, terminal disease out there. Anyone who has been through watching a loved one suffer through something terrible can relate to Wade’s plight in Maggie. For those who haven’t, “Maggie” will give a good idea of what it’s like—and that’s some true horror. Rent it.


More New Releases: “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as a woman fighting the government to regain a piece of art stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II; “5 Flights Up,” starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a couple trying to sell their Brooklyn apartment—see my full review here; “The Town that Dreaded Sundown,” a mediocre meta-sequel of the much more effective 1978 film of the same name, which was based on real-life murders in post-World War II Texarkana; “The Big Chill,” Baby Boomer classic about a group of friends coming together after the suicide of one of their own (played by Kevin Costner, whose scenes were deleted); “Joe Dirt,” David Spade misfire that should never have been made; and “Spasmo,” a movie I am mentioning solely because you can see a tit on the cover.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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